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My Chinese family-- By Kavita Dattani
Views:592 Time:1/24/2018 10:42:16 AM

(Kavita Dattani is a recent graduate from Britain, currently studying Chinese language at Tsinghua University in Beijing.)

As I followed my usual Beijing daily routine of coming home from University, buying groceries, and heading up to my apartment, I was lucky enough to experience a friendly encounter. When entering the elevator I heard 'deng yi xia! deng yi xia!' meaning 'wait! wait!', and as I held the elevator doors open, a woman swiftly entered and thanked me. When I replied to her thanks in Chinese, she was surprised. The elevator made its way up, and we carried on our conversation. She offered to help me improve my Chinese, as she said teaching Chinese was a hobby of hers, and we then went on to exchange names and numbers (all of this in one elevator journey? Living on the 22nd floor has its advantages). I didn't think much of this encounter as I have, on many occasions, come across Chinese people who enjoy speaking with foreigners and offering their assistance, but it usually never goes further than a mere few words. What's more, coming from England, I am always a little skeptical that I am just being used for an opportunity to practice oral English.

A few hours later I received an SMS from the woman and we had a short conversation consisting of general introduction chit-chat. As I told my flatmates about the experience and narrated the text conversation aloud, they didn't hesitate to express their concern. From a western perspective, experiences like these are dangerous, and a little strange to say the least. Yet, I pushed their worries aside, and in my attempt to try and be 'more Chinese' I stayed in touch with my new elevator friend. Additionally, it is surprisingly hard to meet Chinese people in Beijing, as being a Chinese language student means that most of the time I am surrounded by my foreign classmates.

The following week she invited me to go for milk tea with her and her 13 year old daughter, and at this point I was almost sure that the prime reason was so that her daughter would have the perfect opportunity to practice her English. Regardless of this, I still went because I thought that I would be able to squeeze in some of my own Chinese language practice at the same time. As we drank our tea and chatted about various things, I soon came to realize that my skeptical pre-assumptions were indeed wrong. Most of our conversation was in Chinese, and even though it would have been much easier to speak in English, as my Chinese level is still only intermediate, they went to great lengths to try and help me practice and even teach me new words. I was not only shocked, but still questioning why they would be so kind to a complete stranger.

(Kavita Dattan)

Our next encounter was when they invited me to their apartment to make dumplings. We spent the whole afternoon chatting, joking, cooking and looking at old photos of their family. They made me feel completely at ease in their home and I genuinely felt like I was back in England with my own family. We ate a huge meal and over dinner they mentioned that they rarely invite people to their home because of the pressure of Chinese ideals, but in my case, as I was a foreigner, this pressure didn't exist. Later, they told me to relax and act as one of them rather than a courteous guest.

After these initial meet-ups I have spent a lot of time with the family, and I feel that they have become my own family abroad. They have persisted in helping me with my Chinese studies, while also assisting me with overcoming any other troubles that I have come across. My initial doubts were wrong and I feel guilty having had them, yet they made me realize the extent of the existence of hostility between strangers in the west. I don't know for what reason this family were so nice to me - maybe because they wanted to have a foreign friend, maybe because being only allowed one child, they wanted the feeling of more young people in their home, or maybe there is no reason at all. But, the fact that both me and my western friends thought that it was so odd that a stranger would be so kind and compassionate to another without gainful intent is sad. This experience, and meeting these people has made my time in China unforgettable, and I dread to think of if I had let my western cynicisms act as a barrier. I feel like this simple difference in attitude is something that we in the west can learn from Chinese culture, it not only opens up more opportunities, but also seems a more natural and social way of living life.